Connecting Antarctica – a broadband revolution for the Great White Continent

4,000 scientists and dodgy internet – what can possibly be done? Todor Lolovski/Australian Antarctic Division

The information revolution is hurtling towards Antarctica in the shape of a 20 centimetre cube weighing less than 10 kilograms.

It can’t come soon enough. Not because Antarctic scientists (numbering more than 4,000 in the summer months, and more than 1,000 in the winter) want better access to their Facebook pages – these scientists, drawn from 28 different nations, generate more data than they can export using existing communications.

Given the pressing nature of some of that science regarding the impacts of climate change, this is an information bottleneck we need to overcome.

Establishing a quality communications link with the Great White Continent is no small feat. Traditional telecommunications gear such as optical fibre or radio links are far too expensive and, in many cases, technically unfeasible.

And geostationary satellites, one of the mainstays used for communication, aren’t enough.

Such satellites are positioned at an exact height above Earth (about 36,000 kilometres) and rotate at the same speed as the planet. In effect, this means they remain stationary above a point Earth, typically directly over the equator.

Because of this, they appear low on the Antarctic horizon and only work for stations on the Antarctic coastline. Data transfer rates are low and reception can be unreliable.

The best solution lies in setting up a new dedicated satellite link but traditional satellite networks cost a bomb – starting at many millions of dollars – and there simply aren’t enough people down south who would use the link to interest commercial ventures.

Antarctic Broadband

That’s where Antarctic Broadband – a joint venture between industry and academia – comes in.

The project, which began last year, will involve using small satellites placed in a unique orbit that operate a very high-frequency radio link.

The venture is led by Aerospace Concepts of Canberra together with the Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Toronto.

The first stage was funded by the Federal Government’s Australian Space Research Program for $2.1 million.

Great expectations

The aim is to develop and launch a pair of communication satellites that will be placed in a highly elliptical orbit around Earth.

The trajectory is similar to the Molniya orbits used by Russia for its communications satellites – only reversed so there is a long “dwell time” over the southern pole.

This means the satellite’s time over the South Pole would effectively be 18 hours a day – and with two satellites orbiting in opposite phases, Antarctica would have continuous satellite coverage.

To keep weight to a minimum, the system will use 26.5-40 GHz Ka-band radio communication and highly directional transmitting and receiving antennas.

This frequency allows for very high-speed data links within a narrow beam.

The primary command-and-control ground station for the satellites will be operated by the ANU at its Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra.

This ground station will be used to download test data and upload control instructions as the spacecraft flies over head.

The first phase of the project, involving planning and development, started last June and is now coming to an end. The second phase, rolling out over the coming year, involves creating a “demonstrator” nano-satellite and deploying it in a low-Earth orbit (a 1,000km circular orbit).

The demonstrator will be a 20cm cube. It’s described as “nano” because traditional communications satellites can weigh up to six tonnes and are as big as a bus.

Flicking the switch

Next, towards the end of 2013, comes the real thing. That means the launch of two or three small satellites into unique elliptical orbits.

Each will weigh around 150kg and be about the size of a bar fridge. They will provide extended coverage over Antarctica.

In this fully-operational phase the plan is to have two dedicated ground stations in Western Australia and South America.

In the Antarctic there will be up to 20 two-metre ground-station terminals located at user facilities. And when that happens, Antarctica will finally join the modern world.

The skills, technology and capacity that will be created in this project promises to open up a whole new industry in satellite and communications.